How did Republicans become a “flat earth” party?
A “flat earth” position is a commonsense viewpoint that becomes an outmoded holdover in a scientifically oriented world.
This Republican transition came about in three stages: Increasing Ideological Inadequacy, Power Politics and Trumpian Conquest.
Ideologically, Republicans have fundamentally relied on this interpretation of democracy: freedom as non-interference, rugged individualism with personal responsibility, and free market capitalism. Motto: “Advancement of the fittest, with a place for charity.”
This view has strong commonsense appeal: You’re a free person when you don’t have government or others interfering with what you want to do. Your choices direct your life so you are personally responsible for those choices and the actions following from them. You should, and will, succeed or fail in a competitive free market environment. Successful persons deserve the benefits they gain through their abilities and effort, although decency suggests some charity toward others not doing as well.
But the view has become an increasingly untenable oversimplification starting with roughly the middle of the 19th century — when sciences (1) turned to the study of human actions and (2) developed technologies having ever more widespread social consequences. The more educated and the more technologically-advanced we are, the more we need a more up-to-date view of democracy.
The present reinterpretation of democracy: freedom based upon both non-interference and opportunity, reconstructed individualism and responsibility taking relevant biological and social factors into account, an economy working more effectively by combining both capitalistic and socialistic elements, a greater role for federal, state and local governments with respect to both programs and regulations.
Individuals should be well rewarded for their effort, but not to the exclusion of other factors that affect achievements. Motto: Establishing a level playing field of equal opportunity.
What does freedom as opportunity mean? Example: Providing public education enhances our freedom by expanding our opportunities to achieve desired goals and act responsibly.
Note that the reinterpretation does not reject completely the outdated view. Rather, it’s a knowledge-based addition. And some Republicans (moderate ones) have been open to the reinterpretation in the past. Since 1980 however, their party influence has dwindled to nearly nothing.
What, specifically, is the role of science in all this?
Regarding human actions, science tells us about environmental needs and dangers, physiology, medicine, personal development, effects of social and economic conditions, prejudices, social class structures, institutional discrimination, women’s equality, gender differences.
Science provides studies and data to better deal with issues such as education, poverty, crime, violence, civil rights, suicide and mental illness.
With respect to science-based technologies, we need to deal with the large-scale benefits and harms associated with instant communication, quick and abundant transportation, environmental effects, dangerous weapons, population growth, greater affluence, computers, automation, job and location displacements.
More generally, sciences establish what it means for present-day democracy to include prevention of toxic environments, provision of needed infrastructure, guarantees of civil rights and assurance of equal opportunities.
How have Republicans survived (even thrived) with an outdated ideology?
Answer: anti-democratic power politics.
There’s a political base still retaining the ideology. There also are others, with reactionary social views, who became recruits: like white southerners opposed to the civil rights movement, evangelicals committed to imposing their particular Christian beliefs on the nation, supporters of male dominance, white resentment of immigrants of color, rural dissatisfaction with increasing urbanization, opponents of same sex marriage, right-wing propagandists. Altogether, they become a constituency embracing power politics.
Although a minority, Republicans can manipulate the existing political structure: by gerrymandering, voter suppression, taking advantage of outdated election apportionment (like the electoral college and each state having two senators regardless of population), trying to manipulate the census to exclude people who should be counted, opposing campaign financing reform, promoting gridlock politics, increasing the national debt to prevent future government spending, always supporting tax decreases but opposing tax increases, undermining the social safety net through inadequate funding, stacking the courts with conservative judges, trying to block accumulation of scientific data needed for effective governmental action.
Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party is the culmination of the preceding stages: an authoritarian leader, so dishonest and careless about the distinction between truth and falsity, that he brings the party to full “flat earth” mode. Whether you admit it or not, you can’t put your faith in him without adopting the corruption of truth.
The world is what it is. We can’t afford to ignore or misuse what science tells us. And we’re not going to solve our problems by following the “flat earth” pathway of the Republican Party.
Ron Yezzi, emeritus professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, taught courses in social and political philosophy. He lives in Mankato.